Me with my lovely wife, Kathy:

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Preach the Word--No, Really, Preach the WORD:

Let me say upfront that this is pretty much a shoptalk piece.  I am writing with my fellow preachers in mind.

At our Easter service 2014, I did something that I have never done before.  I presented a sermon that
consisted entirely of scripture.  I figure it is something like seven-tenths of one percent of the whole Bible.  I did it from memory.  (imprefectly, but mostly.)
Toward the end of last year, my son sent me a link to a video of a message delivered by Ronnie Smith.  As you'll see if you peruse the site, Smith died not long after delivering this message.  He died while sharing the Good News.  (, click on "watch the sermon.")  The sermon Smith delivered is composed entirely of scripture.  You will hear as you get into the message, that it is much more than a dry recitation.  It is a passionate presentation of the History of Redemption.  My son, Chris, challenged me and a couple other of his preacher-buddies to do this for Easter.  I realized that memorizing that much scripture would take a lot of work--at least for me--so I thought about it for a while.  I decided that if I did this I wouldn't just take Smith's assembly of Bible passages (though there is nothing wrong with his collection, in fact I used it as a source for much of mine) but would use my own script.  Previous reading of scripture had shown me that the New Living Translation, because of its conversational tone, works well for this kind of thing, so, I decided, if did this, I would use it for the base of the presentation. (When I finished, my compilation contained NLT, NIV, NASB, and KJV.)  I, fairly early on, realized that if something like this was going to work, there was no easy way to do it.  It couldn't be read--whether from paper, or teleprompter (I don't have one, anyhow.)  It had to be memorized--and memorized to the point that as one is sharing it he wouldn't have to think about it.  The preacher needs to focus on delivery, not what the next word is.  I finally came to the conclusion that this was something I should do.  As I got into it I found myself asking,

"Why have I not done this before?"

Over the years I have heard of other preachers who have presented similar sermons.  I heard about one preacher who memorized the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7, and delivered it.  I've not heard it, but I've heard that a friend of mine has a Christmas message that includes large quantities of the Bible he has memorized.  The closest I had ever come to doing anything like this was reading fairly large portions of scripture--the Book of James, most of 1 John, or the Sermon on the Mount.

Early in 2014 I decided I was going to do this.  At first I thought I would divide the message into several sections and present the pieces spread over several months, as a ramp up to the Easter message, which would be all the pieces put together.  I never really decided  to not do that.  It just didn't happen.  I put the script together and started working on it.  After I had the script assembled, I read it and recorded it.  I and a couple of others listened to it.  This led to some tweaking.  It seems like memorizing is such a very personal thing, so I won't say anything about how I memorized the material.  I'll simply say it did take a lot of work.  I'd guess I invested at least one-hundred-fifty hours, spread out over two months, in memorizing the text.  I still didn't get to the word-perfect point where I wanted to be.   If you listen to the sermon, you will hear my homiletic tires hit the gravel on the shoulder of the road numerous times.

This is really the main point of this post:  I recommend that other preachers do this.  At least once in your career, present a message that isn't just based on God's Word, but is God's Word.

Here are some of my reasons for making this recommendation:

  • In a sense it is putting our labor where our mouth is.  We talk about the power, perspicacity, sufficiency, and absolute necessity of the Bible.  OK, preach the Word.
  • I was personally moved by this presentation, so much so that had there been a freak storm on Easter Sunday, and I never had the opportunity to present this message, I would still be glad I had done this.  The congregation heard this message once.  I "heard" it at least a hundred times, and I never grew tired or bored with it.
  • I became convinced at a deeper level of the unity, and grand sweep of scripture.  The symmetry, and the driving themes of the Book came through to me.
  • As I shared the sermon on Easter Sunday, I was struck with the power of Scripture to impact lives.  I am not opposed to preaching, in the usual sense of the word.  In fact I am a fan of the medium, but if I think that God, and God's Word, are unintelligible, unless I explain Him or it, I am simply being arrogant.  Just scripture, if the presenter gets out of the way sufficiently to allow the pathos, as well as the logos of the Bible to come through (and this is one reason the text has to be memorized to the point so one becomes comfortable with it), will impact people.  God did not give His Word only for PHDs.
Probably by this point you already see some dangers.  Here are some I tried to guard against.
  • I absotively, posolutely did not want to crash and burn.  Some of my practice sessions produced the human equivalent of a locked up computer.  I came to a point where if you had asked me, "Howard, what is your name?"  I couldn't have answered.  Obviously, I didn't want the people who came to the Easter service at CBC to go home and say, "Wow, that was really something.  I don't think I've ever seen somebody crash that spectacularly."  So, I decided early on I wasn't going to do this without a net.  If you watch the sermon, you can see a large monitor in front of me.  A colleague--a trusted one--displayed the text of the sermon for me.  Mostly I didn't use it, but--call me a coward if you want--I was very reassured that it was there.
  • I wanted this to be about the Word of God, and the God of the Word, not this poor preacher.  I've already said that this was a lot of work, and quite unusual, so it was unavoidable that this presentation would attract some attention to itself and to me.  My constant prayer, though, was, and is, that this would be to the glory of the Word, not the presenter of the Word.  And here is one of the oddities.  It seemed to me, if that were going to take place, that I had to do this in a non-stumbling manner.  I didn't want folk to say, "We could see that he worked really hard at that, but he got through.  Bless his heart."  I tried to do well, so people wouldn't notice that I did well.  I had a couple of months to work on this inner antinomy.  I suppose you could add this to the list of benefits, above.  It is good to work hard and do something with as much excellence as one can, so as to present it as an offering to the Lord.  I figure this was something that Bezalel and Aholiab had to work through.
  • This one has more to do with preparing the script than the presentation.  I found it hard to edit out portions of scripture.  This is the Word of God.  Who am I to say that this word or this sentence, etc. should be cut.  Yet, in trying to tell God's Story in about thirty minutes I had to edit out some over seventy hours of material.  Not only did I select certain portions of scripture--effectively editing out the rest.  I chopped out words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs from those passages.  If you read through the scripture I listed in the handout it will take you considerably longer than half an hour.  In my editing I really tried not be cute and especially to not be deceptive.  Whenever possible, I looked for briefer accounts of the same event given elsewhere in the Bible.  Stephen, in his sermon in Acts, helped me out several times.  The exercise forced me to apply 2 Timothy 2:15.
Bottom line:  At this point I'm planning to do this again.  I want to review this message--possibly tweak it some--enough so I can use it again sometime, without completely relearning it.  I'm thinking about some other similar projects.  Like my son, who got this started for me, I challenge you.  Preach the Word.  at least once in your life.

Website for the Hisotry of Redemption:  (click on "watch the sermon")
My Easter Sermon, God's Story in His Own Words: 

The handout containing the list of scripture used:

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Morning After Easter, Some Personal Reflections:

It is a lazy morning the day after Easter.  The start of a project awaits for later in the day.  Right now, after sleeping in this morning, I'm sitting here hoping Kathy gets up first so she can bring me another cup of coffee.  It's not so much that I'm tired.  I'm just enjoying doing nothing for a bit.
I would not for a moment compare our Easter Sunday to anyone else's--and I hope this will in no way lead you to do so--but we had a great Easter Sunday at Covington Bible Church, where I have been privileged to invest my life.  Many factors lead to my conclusion; probably some of them so personal that they won't make sense to anyone else.  Still, I think, there are some objective (share-able) reasons I can say yesterday was great day at my church.

  • It seemed like people got it.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, after His death for our sin is at the very heart of Bible truth.  It merits some excitement.  It deserves our best effort.  It is worth celebrating.  In his marvelous text of Theology, the Letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul connects the power of the Resurrection, with our new life after our "dead-in-trespasses-and sin" past (here).  In his extended treatise on the Resurrection, Paul says that if the Resurrection of Christ is not a reality "we are of all men most to be pitied" (here).
    It was a great day at Covington Bible Church because from those who mowed the grass, to those who shared music, to those who invited a friend, to those who showed up even though their old bones ache, to those who set up extra chairs praying for that chair's occupant as they put it in place, my sisters and brothers in Christ said, "The tomb is empty.  Jesus is alive!  I can be saved in Him.  That is worth celebrating."
  • There was a refreshing unity of spirit.  I mentioned some of the kinds of contributions that were made to make our Easter service the highly encouraging time that it was, so I won't repeat myself.  Instead I'll tell you a brief anecdote.  One of my preacher-buddies told me last week that he had run into a member of CBC.  She is not an upfront person.  She is the kind of person about whom you might ask, "Was ___ there?"  and to answer you have to think hard.  Anyhow, my friend reported this lady's excitement about the upcoming Easter service.  Part of her excitement was the part she was playing in our big day.  She was pumped that her church was celebrating her Lord's victory over death, and she was looking forward to having a part in that celebration.  I saw and heard that in many lives.
    The fact that the chairs in the Worship-Center were mended, and the flower beds mulched was very important, but the reality that the hearts of those who spread mulch, shined floors, sewed upholstery, and a score of other projects were turned to the Lord in worship was of eternal significance.  
  • There was clear evidence of God's blessing.
    We had prayed for over a particular number to be with us Sunday.  Like the man who carried an umbrella when he met with drought-stricken farmers to pray for rain, we prepared for God to answer.  He did.  I know that some of the folk whose hands I shook were there because God had worked in their lives.  The closing of the service indicated that God was at work in hearts.  I was personally aware of God making me able.  I'm thankful that He allowed me to share His Story.  I hope this blog post is indication that He was/is at work in my heart.  Yesterday was one more part of a long-term restoration that has been going on in my life.  Thank You, Lord, and thanks to my church family.
  • We saw the Resurrection, not only as an isolated event--powerful and wonderful though it may be.  Because yesterday's message led us, literally from "In the beginning," to the final "Amen," we were able to see that the Resurrection is the key to a great cosmic struggle that really is no struggle at all.  God's plan unfolds in some very dark ways.  That darkness is at its blackest during those three hours on the cross and three days in the tomb.  The Resurrection shows there never was any question.  There has never been a time when God has lost control of His world. The victory of Christ over death shows that, and it shows me he can handle what is going on in my life.
I have a horribly unspiritual measurement device that I sometimes use to judge how we are doing as a church (Yes, I know it's not about me.  Please note this is not my only evaluation criteria.), I ask, "Did I have fun?"  I agree with John Piper--my joy (Dare I say "fun"?) and God's glory are related.  It was great to be at Covington Bible Church yesterday.

The way our recording system works, or doesn't work, music doesn't turn out very out very well when we record our services, so the only thing you will find here is yesterday's message.  It was a privilege to share it with my church family and their guests.  If it ministers to you, it will be further reason for me to be thankful.